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Douglas Gresham: Living Life in Narnia

By Hannah Goodwyn Producer - Millions of readers and theologians know C.S. Lewis as the prolific Christian apologist who wrote such books as The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. However, Lewis’ most read work happens to be a children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Its worldwide appeal has garnered new film adaptations of the books with the latest installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, opening in theaters this Friday. One of the driving forces behind putting Narnia on the big screen is C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham.

When he was a young boy, Gresham read The Chronicles of Narnia. Little did he know the author of the series would soon become his stepfather and friend. It was their relationship that comforted Gresham in 1960 when his mother, novelist Joy Davidman, died of cancer. Just three years later, Jack, as Gresham calls him, passed away.

A self-proclaimed Narnia purist, Gresham is passionate about sharing Jack’s stories with the world, and fulfills that mission as an executive producer for the film series. Recently, in interviews promoting the new Narnia film, Gresham revealed how his famous stepfather exhibited true faith, how Narnia affects his day to day, and what the Chronicles creator would think of the new movies.

C.S. Lewis, or Jack as you call him, was your friend and stepfather. Tell me a little bit about your relationship and your own spiritual journey.

Douglas Gresham: My spiritual journey was sort of a strange one I guess in a way. It had very little to do with my relationship with Jack in some ways and huge amounts in other ways.

First of all, Jack became a friend, because he was a friend of my mother's. I was always a welcome guest. We moved from London to Headington Quarry, and it was made quite plain to me by Jack and Warnie (Lewis’ brother) and that I was welcome at the Kilns anytime I wanted to go out there and play in the woods. So I spent an awful lot of time there. I would see them in passing and just say hello, and they would chat.

Then of course when they were married—my mother and Jack, we moved to the Kilns and lived there full-time, and I thought I was in Heaven. It was just such a beautiful place to be. But of course it was shot through with a terrible pain and fear of my mother's impending death which took four years. So in a sense it was a difficult time.

In that time, Jack and I grew very close because we were both suffering from the same sort of Damocles if you like, hanging over us. When my mother did die, I grew closer still with Jack; I was the only person he had to lean on. His brother, Warnie, being an alcoholic was out of the picture. And my brother had left to pursue his own things by then. So Jack and I grew very close at that time also and really the relationship changed from this sort of friend to “stepfather”....

Jack was immensely compassionate, very kind and very understanding. I don't think I could have found a better stepfather if I had searched the whole world. We grew very close toward the end when my mother died, the last three years of Jack's life, from 60 to 63. We were sort of partners in a sense against a hostile environment, Warnie being drunk most of the time on and off, and just life being pretty grim. We were both still grieving over the loss of my mother. And then he died, so that all came to an end as well.

How did C.S. Lewis’ faith impact your life?

Gresham: [Jack] never lectured me or preached at me. He lived his Christianity so visibly he didn't have to. I was always someone who believed in God and believed in Jesus from a very young childhood. And I have good reason for that having met him face to face in a sense in a churchyard. That's in my own biography (Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis), which you'll have to read to figure that out.

My problem was never that I didn't believe. I did believe, but then so does the devil. The devil believes in God and in Jesus Christ and shudders in fear. He knows the Truth. It took me many years to realize that I wasn't qualified to run a human life, least of all as one as complicated as my own. And I handed it over to Christ to deal with, which I did in a later stage of my life.

Jack never had to teach me the elements of Christianity, because I was fully aware of them. He lived such an exemplary life as a Christian that his example showed me more than anything else what a Christian could be. Jack, though he never put it into words, probably followed a principle, which I believe in. I think if you're a committed Christian, one of your very first responsibilities in life is to constantly and continuously attempt to be the answer to other people's prayers. Jack did that as best he could all the time. I'm not very good at it yet, but I'm practicing. I think it's an essential part of Christianity. If you can't be the answer to other people's prayers, provide the answer to other people's prayers in any way you can. Jack was someone who did this all the time as if it was just as natural to him as breathing. That was a huge example to me. Jack taught me very much about Christianity simply by living it. And I think that's probably the best form of evangelism: to live your Christian faith openly, outwardly, and visibly.

You’ve said that you live life in Narnia. What do you mean by that?

Gresham: [laughing] Well, when I was a little boy, and I read the books I thought what a wonderful place. And I suddenly realized after many years that Narnia is as present in our world as our world is in Narnia. If you look at the nine chronicles, an awful lot of our world creeps in there. Narnia is just as present here if we look for it. In a spiritual sense and in an emotional sense and even in an artistic and visible sense, the landscapes of Narnia, beautifully described by Jack and portrayed in our movies are to be found here in this world if you look for them. So I decided, in my sort of preteen years, that I would just stay in the Narnia part of things and entirely ignore the rest. And I'm still doing it.

I would love to actually go and live there, quite frankly. The nearest I’ve come is Tasmania in Australia, where I lived and farmed for many years. But I love Narnia. And I would love also the spirit of the people in the sense of the ethos by which they lived, the morality which evolved in Narnia and was demonstrated in Narnia. One of the terrible things that’s happened to our society is that in the 20th century, we looked at all the 19th century fabulous concepts, such as duty, honor, personal commitment, personal responsibility, courage, chivalry, all of those dead concepts and [thought], “they’re all out of date now. You’re old fashioned. Chuck them out.” As a result, we’re suffering the consequences of that…. We need to get those things back, and Narnia itemizes them, along with the King Arthur legends, and so on. The best way of getting them back is to let people know that, “hey, they did exist and do exist. And we can make use of them”. This movie particularly, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is all about temptation and how to deal with it, which everybody faces every minute of every day.

Why do you think that storytelling or allegory are so effective in getting across truths to people, as opposed to just stating, “This is the truth.”

Gresham: The first thing to realize is that the Narnia stories are not allegories in the strictest sense. That word has, as many have, become corrupted over the years. Nor was The Lord of the Rings allegorical. To do that, you would have to have a direct representation of everything that happened in order in one sphere and then put it into the other sphere. Narnia is actually a suppositional representation of what might have happened if a certain set of circumstances had occurred.

Storytelling is the most powerful medium for getting messages across, because it’s all we have. How else do you do it? This is a bit like someone who said to me once, “The Bible is just a book written by men.” And I said, “Well, what do you want God to use? Sea slugs?”

Obviously, storytelling that grasps both the imagination and the intellect or the interest of the hearer or viewer or whatever is far more powerful than a droning, boring lecture from someone standing on a podium. I never learned anything in my lectures at college. Now put me on the tractor out in the fields, and I learned how to plow. I’d been told in the lecture room for hours how to do this job. I was an agricultural student, I hasten to add. But you have to get out there and do it. But the best way of all of getting these rather more ethereal ideas across is certainly to tell stories in which they operate. This is probably why Jesus used parables to such effect. And He was the master of the art. So if it’s good enough for Him, it’s good enough for me.

What parts of the Narnia books do you think Lewis took from his life and his surroundings?

Gresham: All of it. If you sit down to write something, all you have to write from, all of the storage space in your cupboard, is out here. Everything you’ve ever experienced will influence what you write. Everything you believe and love will influence what you write. But all of that is a result of your own experiences.

Jack had some degree of help because while I think Jack was the person who wrote all these stories down, I’m convinced the Holy Spirit of God was the author of them because they’ve had such an impact all over the world for several years, and will for many, many years to come. As long as people are reading works of literature in any form or shape, C.S. Lewis will be amongst the forefront of the authors.

If he were here today looking at these films, do you know which one he would say, “Wow, to see that . . . ”

Gresham: Just the idea of Aslan being portrayed in cartoon animation just horrified him. It would be tantamount to sacrilege as far as he was concerned. So he was terrified that someone would make a movie like that. He always forbade it in his lifetime, and I have forbidden it ever since, as much as I could, as much as I had control of. And I’ve been trying to make these movies for, oh, goodness, since way back. We had a deal with other film companies and so on, which came to nothing…. But I think these movies were held up by the Holy Spirit of God until the technology developed sufficiently for us to do justice to them. Now that we can put a lion on screen that people can’t tell from a real lion is just awesome.

Given that Lewis had his own objections to filming novels, do you know if the subject ever came up of why he allowed the film rights for his books to be part of the estate?

Gresham: I don’t think Jack was too worried about what would happen after his life. I think he felt responsible for what happened during his own lifetime. And what happens after I’m gone is not really my responsibility either. It’s like selling a house. You sell the house and move out. The fact that someone comes in and paints it bright purple or something is no longer you’re problem.

But I’m doing my best to protect Jack’s works in this time when I’m alive and to do as much as I can to prepare for the time when the copyrights run out on them and people can do whatever they want. I’m trying to develop most avenues of development that we can think of so that we can retain some kind of copyright control on our work and also to make sure that everything that can be done has been done well before someone trashes it. That’s about all I can do really. But I don’t know; Jack really wouldn’t have thought about that much I don’t think at all. But I know he hated the idea of someone making a Mickey Mouse version of Narnia.

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Hannah GoodwynHannah Goodwyn serves as the Family and Entertainment producer for For more articles and information, visit Hannah's bio page.

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